The news is officially out: I’m riding for the Hagens Berman | Supermint Pro Cycling Team for 2016, a new women’s UCI professional cycling team I co-own with Jono Coulter.
A team I co-own.
Those are words I never aspired to say. No part of me ever wanted to own a business, especially not one where profitability is irrelevant and breaking even is the goal. I’ve spoken to people in the past who were all, “I’d love to have my own team!” and I’d laugh and reply, “I’d love to slam my hand in a door repeatedly!” The idea of coordinating sponsors and riders and travel and logistics made my brain melt, especially when I watched teams struggle and fold year after year.
As the 2015 season wrapped up, though, Jono and I started talking about plans for 2016. We each had options on the table but also ideas of how we wanted to change the experiences we’d already had working for other teams. Those ideas turned into casual conversations that turned into more serious talks that turned into….wait. What? We’re starting our own team?
We had concepts, some connections, and balls the size of cantalopes, but no money. It didn’t matter at that point; our enthusiasm was enough to get the planning started for real and we each maintained the foolhardy belief that everything would work out. Alcohol and constant pep talks helped. We talked so many times a day that we may be legally wed in several states.
Our plans became more official as the weeks progressed – we started branding the team, brought on a great group of riders, and lined up initial details for a schedule. We were all in and excitement was building. The only minor hiccup was a complete lack of outside funding. Financial agreements we made were backed by our own money, an ill-advised, frightening concept but also the only way we could move forward and ensure that we fulfilled our promises. We refused to take on obligations we couldn’t already afford, but in the absence of a major sponsor, that meant we were agreeing to personally cover salaries and expenses.
I didn’t sleep in October.
My parents and friends expressed some concern over this plan. This is not wise, they’d say. Are you sure you want to back this plan with your own money? I knew it was a gamble, but a time-honored one taken by entrepreneurs everywhere. I believed in what we were building, believed in Jono, and believed that it was better to go all in on our dream than play it safe and sign up for another dissatisfying year. When it came time to submit the initial fees to the UCI and USA Cycling, we paid unhesitatingly out of our own pockets.
Meanwhile, I spent every free moment networking with, chatting up, and emailing potential title sponsor companies. Our sponsorship proposition was something new and different in the business – we had riders with professional careers off the bike and wanted to leverage those backgrounds to deliver better benefits to our sponsors. Instead of promising “clicks” and jersey space and “mentions” – frankly useless and hard-to-measure propositions for companies – we offered networking, access to riders for company initiatives, and our ability to engage effectively with customers and partners.
The proposal was strong but finding the right partner was a challenge unlike anything I’ve faced before. I’ve worked in business development for a long time, but never on the sales side. Making cold calls, pushing for meetings, and taking rejection repeatedly were all new, harrowing experiences. I was constantly bracing to take on the next target, send the next email, and explain the concept to yet another CEO. Getting shot down multiple times stung and it took a while to build up a shell; sometimes I would hang up the phone and just cry. Fatigue, frustration, and anxiety were overwhelming at times and I was perpetually on edge wondering what if it doesn’t come together?
Our big break came in November. Steve Berman of the Hagens Berman law firm read the team proposal and wanted to come on board as our title sponsor. I hyperventilated, wept, and laughed all at once; it sounded like somebody was shaking an emotional hyena, but all I could hear was the sound of our dreams coming true. I love lawyers! I even went to law school for a bit! HAGENS BERMAN 4EVER!!1!11!!
I’d love to say it was painless and easy from that moment forward, but that would be a lie: building a team is hard. Just when you think you’re on top of things, another issue arises or the next item on the list needs to be sorted out. I’ll be falling asleep and suddenly jolt awake thinking something like WATERBOTTLES! The official team launch occurred while I was on a highway in New Mexico moving cross-country; I awoke on the first day of 2016 to remember OMG, payroll.
But this has also been one of the best experiences of my life. Jono and I had a dream and we refused to let it go, even when the obstacles seemed insurmountable. We have built a team with great riders and a cool brand and a talented creative director. We have sponsors that believe in what we are building and are giving us the support we need to represent them well. I’ve learned to take rejection in stride, to keep going even when the odds are not looking good, and to manage a million details at once without cracking.
Okay, I have cracked a few times. There is significantly less scotch in my pantry than there was in September.
While I can’t predict how all of this will turn out, there are a few things I already know for sure. HB Supermint’s riders will be treated like professionals on and off the bike. Each rider is paid the same salary, because every team member is valuable, whether they’re sprinting for results or finishing dead last after the leadout. We will not make promises we can’t keep, not to riders, staff, or sponsors. Our sponsors are the key to our success and will be treated as such. These are the principles on which we built this team and no matter where the season takes us, there will be no compromises. The scariest but best thing about being the boss is that you call the shots.
That’s the story of how I came to co-own a cycling team. It’s been a wild ride, but I suppose the fun is just getting started.